The Hetauda - Kathmandu Ropeway
from an article by KESHAB POUDEL

Despite its importance in transporting goods in a cheap and cost-effective manner, Nepal Ropeway is now just a part of the history of Nepal's development process. Constructed with the financial and technical support of the United States of America in 1964 amid great promise, Nepal's first modern ropeway was shut down a few years ago after a three-decade struggle for survival. Unlike many other government undertakings, few noticed the discontinuation of the ropeway. Fewer still remember that the phase of modernization in Nepal came through the ropeway technology. In other mountainous countries, the ropeway is an enduring success story. Nobody knows precisely how the saga of Nepal Ropeway went sour

Along the cable line at the Teku-Matatirtha and Hetauda-Bhainse sections, one can see old buckets hanging from steel ropes above the roads. Lying unused for such a long time, some of the buckets are covered by vegetation. The poles, cables and buckets provide a reminder of the days when the ropeway ferried all kinds of goods, as the local people marveled at the movement from yards away. Although the buckets remained a threat to the houses below, few seemed concerned in their moments of awe.

Since Nepal Ropeway was officially shut down three years ago, people living along its trail have started using the steel wire above their homes to hang clothes. Others have constructed houses after breaking the cables. Despite the potential to reuse this well-built infrastructure after investing a small amount of money under private management, the inaction of the concerned offices has pushed the ropeway to ruin.

Assembled as the first sophisticated mechanized bi-cable ropeway to transport goods at cheaper prices, Nepal Ropeway has become history. From the beginning until the end, the ropeway passed through difficult phases. If things remain the same, like many other valuable infrastructure, the metal and wire used in the ropeway might be sold in auction and be melted in some factory outside Nepal for scrap value. Brought in to make Nepal self-reliant by, among other things, reducing the import of petroleum products, the ropeway's objective went up in smoke.

Had the ropeway continued to operate, the country would have saved millions of dollars in precious foreign currency. According to an estimate, every hour carriers can transport goods equivalent to two truckloads. As a truck needs about 250 liters of diesel to fetch the goods, up to 5,000 liters of diesel can be saved in operating the ropeway for 12 hours. Since the transport cost of the ropeway is cheaper than trucks, the essential commodities would also be available for fairly cheap prices.

In terms of foreign currency, the country could save more than Rs.175, 000 required to import oil each day. At the same time, Nepal Electricity Authority could have generated additional revenue from a robust client. Whatever benefits the ropeway may have offered to country, the infrastructure worth billions of rupees is waiting to be dismantled and sold for scrap value. The longer it remains idle, the sooner the equipment would deteriorate.

Government Dilemma

Despite its potential economic benefits, the government seems to be in no mood to prepare a plan to reuse or hand over this cost-effective technology to the private sector. The Economic Survey of 1998 enthusiastically projected a 3.1-kilometer passenger ropeway as a new dimension of private participation in ropeway building, while nothing was mentioned about the future of Nepal's oldest ropeway that was intended to build self-reliance.

The Economic Survey of 1999 finally announced the dissolution of Nepal Ropeway, highlighting the successful story of privately owned Mankamana Cable Car. As Nepal Ropeway was built to carry goods and Mankamana Cable Car was focused on serving passengers, the comparison was entirely misplaced.

Unfortunately, Nepalese planners and policy makers seem to have forgotten the importance of the Hetauda-Kathmandu ropeway in saving the foreign currency and utilizing country's own power-generation capabilities. With a little extra investment, the ropeway can still be used to transport goods at cheaper rates than other modes of transport. As the government has already set up a separate company to operate the Janakpur Railway and formed a committee to study the modality of operation of the Trolley Bus, the government seems to be in a mood to open the ropeway's infrastructure.

Length: 42.224 kilometer

Terminals: 8

Drive stations 7

Capacity of carrier: Hetauda-Kathmandu 550 kg

Kathmandu-Hetauda 275 kg.

Power: 450 horse power

Total Capacity: Kathmandu-Hetauda 11 tons per hour

Hetauda-Kathmandu 22 tons per hour.

"The process of disbanding Nepal Transport Corporation (NTC) has already been completed. Under a cabinet decision of November 2002, Nepal Transport Corporation exists no more. But the government has decided to keep Nepal Railway. In case of truck and ropeway units, the government does not have any plan. After completion of study report, the government will decide on the operation modality of Trolley Bus," said Dhruba Sharma, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor and Transport.

With the dissolution of the NTC, the government has set up a committee to prepare a report regarding the property and liability and other aspects of the organization. "As far as Nepal Ropeway is concerned, we cannot say anything," said Sharma.

In view of the country's frenetic search for markets to sell its surplus energy and the growing demand of carriers to transport goods to Kathmandu, reusing Nepal Ropeway will be a good option. "We can still operate the ropeway after spending some amount of money in repairs and maintenance. We may not bring it up to Teku but it can still be operational from Matatirtha to Hetauda," said Ananda Bahadur Shrestha, former general manager of the NTC. "Since hundreds of trucks of goods are coming to Kathmandu, private management can breath a new life into the ropeway." (See box)

A few years ago, a private party forwarded a proposal to operate Nepal Ropeway to transport the garbage of the valley to land-fill site along the ropeway trail. Instead of deciding in favor of the proposal, the government sanctioned Rs.112 million to build another land-fill site in Okharpauwa. "If we cannot use the ropeway infrastructure to carry essential commodities in its old trail, we can use it to dump the garbage by developing new land-fill sites in the trail," said Shrestha.

Despite having traversed various phase of development, the country's policy makers are yet to change their attitude as far as the operation of Nepal Ropeway is concerned. It is unfortunate that everyone seems to be in a mood to kill the infrastructure made to make Nepal self-reliant.

Ropeway's Impression

The impression of the ropeway remains deep-rooted in the Nepalese mind. It was introduced by Rana prime minister Chandra Sumsher, who installed the first ropeway in 1927. From 1964 till 1997, every finance minister highlighted the importance of the Hetauda-Kathmandu ropeway in the transport sector. Since it was first of its kind, the ropeway was always on the national agenda and dominated the thinking of policy makers and economic planners.

Finance Mahesh Acharya, whose budget announcement of 2000 wrapped up the four-decade history of Nepal Ropeway, had highlighted its contribution as the cheapest means to carry goods from Hetauda to Kathmandu in his first budget in 1992. Acharya proposed the dissolution of the ropeway and his colleague and prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba announced the shutdown of NTC.

Utilization of Ropeway

Although a new ropeway was constructed in 1964 following the inability of the old line to meet the growing demand, it was shut down due to under-utilization.

According to "Half-a-Century of Development: The History of US Assistance to Nepal 1951-2001", published by USAID, actual use (17,000 to 37,000 tons annually between 1966 and 1970) was disappointing compared to the ropeway's capacity of 50,000 tons per year. Ropeway traffic constituted about 15 percent of northbound freight along the Kathmandu-Raxaul corridor, the remainder being hauled in by truck. Every finance minister used similar rhetoric in his budget presentation.

Since 1975/76, only 25 percent of the capacity was utilized. According to the Economic Survey of 1990/91, the ropeway carried 21,000 metric tons of goods in 1988/89. In the first nine months of 1990/91, it carried only 6,900 tons. According to the report, it cost 30 paisa per kg to carry goods through the ropeway against 40 paisa by other means of transport. The government sanctioned Rs.10 million to extend the ropeway up to the factory site of Hetauda Cement. In 1995/96, 7,505 tons of goods were transported
through the ropeway, whereas 8,000 tons were ferried in the following fiscal year.

Despite ups and downs in transporting goods, politicians always hailed the role of ropeway. Acharya, in his maiden budget statement for 1992/93, said, "The 42-kilometer Kathmandu-Hetauda Ropeway, with an annual capacity of 42,000 tons, has been playing a positive role in carrying goods."

Though the ropeway has such a huge carrying capacity, it had not been fully operated since 1976 due to the lack of proper repair and maintenance. In fiscal 1991/92, it transported 11,502 tons of goods but ferried only 8,000 tons in fiscal 1992/93. While it transported 33,560 tons in fiscal 1996/97, it carried 18,152 tons in fiscal 1997/98. During that period, the ropeway charged 34.5 paisa per kilogram of goods, whereas the cost was 47 paisa in other modes of transport.

Experience has shown that the ropeway service is taken as a simple and less expensive means of transporting passengers and goods. Though Nepal Ropeway had a carrying capacity of 25 metric tons per hour, it had not been fully operated due to the lack of goods. In the initial phase, the ropeway was regarded as a successful project and it was a secure mode to carry goods into Kathmandu.

"In the early days, there was heavy pressure on the ropeway as every one wanted to send the goods through it," said former general manager Shrestha. "We had to close down the booking for couple of days because of lack of space in the terminal. From the very beginning, our problems was the lack of technical and managerial staff to operate the ropeway."

Scarcity of Manpower

Any successful ropeway requires combination of three components: regular power supply, technical manpower and managerial skill. Throughout its history, Nepal Ropeway had never found combined efforts of these three components. In the absence of management skills, it failed to develop a modality to handle cargo and power disruption had created new troubles.

From the beginning, the ropeway did not find enough electricity. When the cableway was operating, all the lights in Kathmandu dimmed since the capital's power supply was insufficient.

Scarcity of technical manpower and managerial skills were responsible for ruining the entire ropeway system. Although the Americans had successfully installed the plant, many expressed doubts in the beginning whether Nepal would have the technical and administrative capability to run it.

"The American mission was able to achieve better results in the implementation of two capital projects: the Hetauda-Kathmandu ropeway and the telecommunication network. Because of the power shortage, and a number of technical and administrative problems, this multi-million dollar installation did not go into service until April 1964. There was no doubt, however, that the project would ultimately be fully operational. The question left unanswered was whether Nepal had the technical or administrative resources to keep such a complex running," wrote Eugene Bramer Mihaly in his book "Foreign Aid and Politics in Nepal: A Case Study," first published in 1965.

Although Nepal had its own experience of operating ropeway, no one was ever sent for long-term training. "Our problem was the scarcity of technical manpower. We were unable to train qualified manpower in the ropeway," said Shrestha.

Model of Development

Despite the failure inside the country, Hetauda-Kathmandu Ropeway was used to demonstrate the prospects of a successful alternative transport model. Until the early 1990s, Nepalese officials presented the ropeway as a model of Nepal's development. The arguments forwarded by US officials in the 1960s in favor of the ropeway remained the mantra for development practitioners. Although they failed to explore ways of fully utilizing the Hetauda-Kathmandu ropeway in transporting goods, policymakers did not mind taking up the matter at international meetings.

Although the ropeway was completed about four decades ago, the government did not have any study report or document. After hunting through various organizations for the original pre-feasibility study and original design, this scribe found a thesis of a master's degree student of Tribhuvan University Ramesh Kumar Pandey who prepared it in 1968 at the heyday of Nepal Ropeway.

Thanks to the well documented and well organized Tribhuvan University Central Library, Pandey's thesis for the TU M.Com examination is available to get a glimpse of the mind of contemporary society about the ropeway.

As the ropeway was dissolved a couple of years ago and the NTC was liquidated, there was virtually nothing left to verify the arguments and study files related to the ropeway. Since the ropeway was shut down many years ago, it is difficult to obtain information. But from conversations with retired officials, it clearly emerges that the ropeway was the victim of politics and lack of knowledge.

In his thesis, Pandey writes that ropeway transport was not a new system of transport in Nepal. One ropeway line of 14 miles was constructed between Dhorsing and Matatirtha in the year 1926. Later it was extended to Teku (Bhasar) making it 17.7 miles. The first ropeway had a capacity of 8 tons per hour with mono-cable.

Constructed with the support of the US government in a detailed route surveyed by Indian experts, the 42-kilometer ropeway saw its heyday only for a couple of years. For the remainder of its life, it was a sick industry. According to Pandey's thesis, His Majesty Government and the Government of India signed an agreement in 1956 under the first five year plan to study the ropeway. "As per the accord, the Indian expert made a survey of existing ropeway and gave a report. The report was not so favorable on the point of
extension and renewal. They gave much more emphasis on the construction of a new line between Kathmandu-Hetauda instead of repairing and renovating the existing one," writes Pandey.

Income In Lakh
1978/79 1979/80 1980/81 1981/82 1982/83 1983/84 1984/85
Income: 19.65 11.33 407 7.49 10.58 .4648 46.22
Expense: 31.92 32.85 30.04 27.55 36.21 48.77 46.22
Loss - 12,27 -21.52 -25.97 -20.06 25.63 +20.67 + 3.82

Installed by the Riblet Tramways of Spokane, USA in 1959, the project replaced the mono-cable ropeway which had been operating from Dhusing into Kathmandu valley since 1927.

The Americans had made certain amendments to the design and technical sides. Constructed with the USOM contribution of US$ 4 million, this was a highly sophisticated and faster mode. According to the USAID book, the project was the most technically advanced enterprise ever attempted in Nepal at the time and it demanded incredible efforts. It was supported by 280 steel towers, which were fabricated in the US, shipped to India, carried in pieces to sites and assembled on the spot. The first test run was made in 1962.

Many see the failure of the ropeway as a result of its sophisticated operation. Renowned Swiss development expert Toni Hagen in his report "Observations on Certain Aspects of Economic and Social Development Problems in Nepal, 1959" recommended simple ropeways for Nepal, like the ones in the Swiss Alps, in an abundant number to connect single small valleys, villages and high pastures and forests.

Instead of going in for a manual-type ropeway, Nepalese development planners jumped to the new sophisticated way with high capacity in an area far away from the origin of the Kathmandu-bound goods. With the infrastructure lying redundant from Teku to Hetauda, Nepal's pride of being the second country to operate the ropeway faded into history. For the first time in four decades, the Economic Survey of 2002 came out without mentioning the importance of the ropeway.

Not One Three

A document prepared for the Nepal Aid Group Meeting held in Paris in May 1978 urged donors to support the expansion of the ropeway. "Strong consideration is therefore being given in some areas to the construction of ropeways in addition to the present ropeway between Kathmandu and Hetauda (42 km) which was opened in 1964," it said.

Goods carried

1975/76 - 14,422 mt 1981/82 - 8815 mt
1976/77 - 18,862 1982/83 - 11577
1977/78 - 17517 1983/84 - 9009
1978/79 11007 1984/85 - 11,800
1979/80 10566 1985/86 - 20,000
1980/81 10500 1986/87 - 20,500
1987/88 20,645

Source: Nepal Transport Corporation Bulletin

A recently completed United Nations Development Program study investigated three possible ropeways and concluded that two - one in the far west from Surkhet to Toklasal branching out to Jumla and Sanphe Bagar (130 km) at a total cost Rs.165 million and the second, in the east from Dhankuta to Jogre branching out to Bhojpur and Chainpur (79 km) at a total cost Rs.109 million - were economically justifiable.

At a time when the country was struggling to operate 42-kilometer ropeway and to supply adequate electricity, few understand the rationale for such a long ropeway in other parts of the country. Despite the technical and other failures of the Hetauda-Kathmandu ropeway, it was like a milching cow for Nepalese development planners.

Ropeway, Rail and Road

For the centuries, Kathmandu relied on Raxaul-Amlekhgunj railway to carry the goods to Kathmandu. Until the US built the Bhainse-Raxual road, the combination of ropeway and railway played an important role to transport goods to Kathmandu. As soon as the all-weather road was in operation from Bhainse to Raxaul, trucks loaded the goods from the place of origin and started to deliver them to Kathmandu.

This was one of the major drawbacks of the ropeway. Although NTC began its truck unit to make ropeway more effective, increasing overhead costs including over-staffing raised the freight charge. The curtailing of the private transport operators and inefficient management created more problems. Despite its full potential to transport the goods, Hetauda-Kathmandu ropeway faced hostile situations in its four-decade history. Nobody understands why Nepal made no effort to link the railway to Hetauda, which would have made things different.

Even if the ropeway had covered all these grounds, it could not have survived in the hostile situation created by frequent political intervention, absence of technical manpower and paucity of managerial skills. Regardless of the conditions in which the ropeway came to Nepal and was shut down, it had definitely helped a country isolated for centuries to learn the difficulties and challenges of the modern world. The ropeway has gone, but its good and bad experiences remain in the minds of the people.

With the growing demand for transport to ferry goods into and out of a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, the revitalization of ropeway cannot be ruled out. As the foundation and infrastructure are lying redundant, the government can invite the private sector to take the lead in reviving a system that continues to hold promise.

Rope lift solves a big problem

The sky's no limit.

Nepal's mountainous landscape is a breathtaking experience for thousands of visitors every year but it has proved costly for isolated communities, such as those in the mountain village of Bharpak.

Rope lift, NepalOne in three people in the country live on just £1 per day, surviving by growing and selling food. Transporting crops to market or buying from traders often involved long and dangerous journeys and, in bad weather conditions, proved impossible. This meant the village saw an increase in the price of food and other goods. Even items such as soap were becoming scarce and expensive.

Practical Action (formerly the Intermediate Technology Development Group) came up with an innovative scheme to build an aerial ropeway system, the winch powered by micro-hydro. This simple yet effective system spans 2.5 km of tough terrain over a one thousand-metre climb and acts as a freight lift to deliver and receive goods. This solved the problem of traders refusing to undertake the treacherous six-hour journey to Bharpak and surrounding villages - and meant the price of food and other essentials fell drastically.

The charity co-ordinated the scheme and worked with the Bharpak community to come up with simple solutions to make the ropeway work. Hundreds of people are now reaping the rewards of the aerial ropeway system and as a result, the Bharpak community have seen prices for salt, rice and building sand fall by a rupee per kilo, while previously scarce products such as soap and oil, are now commonplace.

The scheme's success lies in its simplicity - the energy produced by the micro-hydro scheme powers the lift by day and supplies the village with electricity by night. And locally trained operators can carry out nearly all of the maintenance work.

Ropeway systems are an excellent solution for Nepal due to its high mountain ranges and 6,000 rivers which run through the country. It is also difficult for homes in rural areas to link up to established roads - building new roads would be very expensive and often conditions mean many roads would not last more than one season. This simple micro-hydro aerial rope system has changed life for the people of Bharpak. Not only has money been saved but much less time is spent on transporting goods which gives people more time to spend on vital education.

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